Forgetting to feel

Kate Nottidge is Head of Community Engagement at Grosvenor Britain & Ireland (GBI). Kate is passionate about the role of public engagement in the creation and management of places and works across the business to enable meaningful and effective community engagement, investment, and consultation.

Few things in life are as tangible and meaningful as the place where we live. Big events in the wider world broaden our outlook. But they also seem to magnify the importance of what’s on our doorstep.

So what actually is on our doorstep, how does it come about, and how does it function day-to-day? These are questions that have become much more real and relevant to us all whilst spending more time at home in recent months.   

Grappling with the answers is why I do my job. It’s a privilege to help people play a part in the future of their neighbourhood and to my mind it’s also what makes places fail or succeed. So for me, championing ideas that come from the public and making sure their voice gets heard is a win:win situation, both personally and professionally.

As a sector, I sense we’re still happier debating policy and viability than asking residents what they think or how they feel. That requires everyone to open-up and see the world from different points of view, which isn’t easy in a world where levels of trust are already so low..

The intersection of our professional lives with other people’s personal lives can be uncomfortable too. Last year, Grosvenor was confronted with a huge petition in response to our initial proposals for the Cundy Street Quarter. Our error had been a simple human one – we’d forgotten to feel what people feel when faced with having to leave their home.

We also experienced the power of community in a very different way earlier this year when our proposals for Bermondsey were heard at City Hall and five members of the local community publicly and passionately voiced their support. We didn’t get everything right, but we had listened to their feelings, learnt, and been genuinely collaborative.

In reality, the system we are a part of is not set up to feel. Empathy doesn’t tend to be part of our training as a planner, surveyor or accountant! But it is part of being human. Remembering to bring that part of us to work can pay great dividends and forgetting to feel creates many risks.

Many of my colleagues and peers recognised this long-ago, but the industry at large has probably not. So I believe policy must work harder to force the pace and drive better community engagement. Its importance to the success of our neighbourhoods is recognised and frequently cited, but for all the hundreds of policies that exist at national, city-wide and borough levels on the minutiae of infrastructure, trees, design, there is next to nothing on engagement.

A lot of emphasis in emerging policy is rightly placed on local authorities engaging earlier and more effectively with civic society. Some are embracing this and beginning to set specific expectations of our industry with Development Consultation Charters for example. But it’s not the norm and I think more must be expected of our industry too if we are to achieve a step change in community involvement and build greater trust.

Most importantly, we must expect more from ourselves. Grosvenor’s Community Charter  is all about just that. We intend to set a new standard for public engagement across our business and remembering to be human (not just professional) is right at the heart of it.

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